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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: German Literature (1638–1870)

By Bayard Quincy Morgan (1883–1967)

The Sowing of Individualism

THE TERMINATION of the Thirty Years’ War left Germany at the lowest stage of political and moral degradation reached by any European nation since the Middle Ages. The crushing of the middle classes resulted in a total extinction of political and religious liberty; hence fashionable literature followed no canons of art, but was simply a means of currying favor with the great, as Opitz and Gottsched unblushingly confess. Yet the very hopelessness of this situation forced men of real feeling to seek their inspiration in nature and in their own souls. It was such men as Brockes, Haller, and Gellert, though their works are now little read, that in this way began the cultivation of the soil from which an incomparable harvest was presently to be reaped.

The Sprouting of the Seed

Frederick the Great, as is well known, spoke and wrote French, expressed only contempt for the best German writers of his day, and even refused to see Lessing’s ‘Minna von Barnhelm’—the first German comedy to outlive its author. He also threw the great weight of his personal power on the side of that monarchical absolutism which had lamed German literature for a hundred years. Nevertheless, it is with Frederick that we associate the renaissance of German letters. Though excluded from any practical share in public affairs, Germany’s best thinkers were allowed considerable freedom of theoretical speculation, while the great military triumphs of the Prussian king could not but stir their minds with enthusiasm and hope for the future of the German people. Thus they were irresistibly urged into the cultivation of the ideal, and the tendency was destined to stamp German intellectual life far into the nineteenth century. The literature of the hundred years from 1750 to 1850 is predominantly propagandist in character, even when unconsciously so, and much of its power and influence is attributable to the moral fervor in which it was conceived. Three men led the van of this great development—the most dramatic any European literature has witnessed. Klopstock (1724–1803) was the first German poet to attempt the heroic, the grand, the exalted, and at the same time to sound the note of universal sympathy. His ‘Messiah’ (1748) is a sublime poetic oratorio, symbolical of the religious idealism of the German people of his time; his odes stand on the broad ground of cosmopolitanism coupled with a genuine patriotism. Wieland (1733–1813) performed for German taste a service akin to that which Klopstock performed for German idealism and moral sentiment. A thorough nationalist, leaning to French culture where Klopstock leaned to the English, Wieland continued the realistic tendency in German literature, which he sought to enliven and extend. His ‘Agathon’ (1766–1767) is an attempt to exemplify by an object-lesson the teaching of the nationalistic philosophy of his time; namely, the true way toward individual perfection. Less finished than his ‘Musarion’ (1768), less brilliant and graceful than ‘Oberon’ (1780), less pungently satirical than ‘Die Abderiten’ (1774), ‘Agathon’ is notable as a first-fruit of the spirit which was to find its more perfect expression in ‘Faust’—faith in the intrinsic goodness and ultimate aspiration of the human soul. But the greatest of the three is Lessing (1729–1781), who combines with the enlightenment, the idealism, and the finest universality of his age, an intellectual fearlessness and a constructive insight which made him the supreme literary figure of the period. Whether as critic, dramatist, antiquarian, or champion of religious tolerance, we find him everywhere a pioneer, a breaker of new paths. One by one he met the fallacies that still hampered the free growth of literature; one by one he shattered them with the irresistible weight and force of his powerful polemic, and having driven them from the field, set up the new canons of theory and technic that the world has seen prevail. In ‘Laokoon’ and ‘Hamburg Dramaturgy’ he established the true principles of classic beauty which had been falsified and obscured by the pseudo-classicism of Gottsched’s school. But he did more: he himself created a national drama in accordance with his own theories, and at the same time served as the spokesman of popular freedom. ‘Emilia Galotti’ is so bitter an indictment of the evils toward which monarchic absolutism too often led that its performance was forbidden; ‘Minna von Barnhelm’ is not merely the first purely German play, it is also an eloquent plea for the union of German-speaking peoples in their common interest. In short, it is a forerunner of German unity. Finally, we find Lessing ardently espousing the cause of religious freedom, in the controversy with Goeze, the chief Pastor of Hamburg, in the drama ‘Nathan the Wise,’ and in ‘The Education of the Human Race.’ In the very teeth of intolerance Lessing here stoutly champions a principle now universally accepted: that of free inquiry and unbiased research in religious as in other matters.

Reading Recommended

The First Riotous Bloom

There were revolutionary forces concealed in the writings of Klopstock, Wieland, and Lessing, for the agitation toward liberty is contagious. Sooner or later there was bound to come a clash between the hide-bound despotism that was the heritage of the Thirty Years’ War and the passion for individual freedom which that same despotism had largely helped to engender. In both Germany and France the seeds of progress had been planted, more than by any other one person, by Jean Jacques Rousseau, with his impassioned pleading for nature, freedom, individuality, and humanity. In France, these seeds became as grains of dynamite, and Europe rocked with the reverberations of the explosion. In Germany, they flowered forth in a golden age of literature, and the revolution spent its force on the battlefields of the intellect. How similar in inception to the French Revolution was that of Germany will be clear when we remember that the first writers of the “Storm and Stress” period—so called from a play of that title by Maximilian Klinger—preached the destruction of every check on the growth of the individual, war on all authority, and not only glorified every manifestation of nature and of power, even to lust and crime, but expressly rejected all forms of regularity in the social order.

Four men are the leaders in the peaceful triumph of the German revolution: two of them theoretical thinkers, two of them creative poets. Herder (1744–1803) followed Rousseau in defending individuality and natural freedom. But Herder went farther and visualized this individual freedom as a function of national character. Thus he enforced with tremendous effect the lesson of true patriotism taught by Lessing’s ‘Minna von Barnhelm.’ In his ‘Fragmente über die neuere deutsche Literatur’ (1767) he points out that political institutions, language, religion, and especially literature are at once the product of individuals and of the nations to which the latter belong. The Homeric poems, for example, are unmistakably the creation of a seafaring people; and a Shakespeare expresses not only himself, but the character of the entire Anglo-Saxon race. Herder not only beheld a history of civilization based on the literature of the great nations, but made the first study of what we now call comparative literature by collecting and translating folk-songs (‘Volkslieder,’ 1778–1779) from all over the earth. The other great theorist is Kant (1724–1804). As Herder showed history to be a blending of individual and collective forces, so Kant showed a similar ideal operating in man’s mental and moral life. Starting out from English empiricism, he demonstrated in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ that all human knowledge is subjective: nature can never be anything but the product of our minds, which organize our sense-perceptions into an orderly system of so-called natural laws. In the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ Kant carried his speculations upward into the realm of the ideal, and formulated the religious principles which still sway the civilized world. We feel and know ourselves to be moral beings, and our individual freedom lies in obedience to the moral law that speaks within our own souls. Thus Herder and Kant complement each other: one sees mankind as an organic whole, made up of differing national types; the other views men as a community of moral beings, held together by a sense of duty. For both men the highest development of the individual is the ideal; for both it is incompatible with an infraction of the Law that transcends the will of any individual, however great.

These diverse, yet not conflicting, views of life and man are embodied in the two great poets of the age, Goethe (1749–1832), and Schiller (1759–1805). Goethe, like Herder, saw life as an organic whole; Schiller, like Kant, saw it as a continual struggle for perfection. Goethe strove for æsthetic universality; Schiller strove for moral freedom. Both worked in harmony to erect a structure of poetic symbols embodying the fundamental demands of all religion, the common ideals of every society, every race.

Both began, however, as typical representatives of “Storm and Stress.” Goethe’s ‘Götz of Berlichingen’ (1773), ‘Werther’ (1774), and ‘Faust’ (Part I., 1808) are all types of excessively emotional and impulsive natures; and all three meet tragic fates. Götz, an honest, faithful soul in a world of villainy, is ruined by his own uprightness; Werther, disappointed in love and out of tune with the world, takes his own life; and it can be said that Faust, as he stands at the end of the first part, with Gretchen’s ruin on his conscience, is morally if not actually dead. Torn between a passion for highest knowledge and a passion for sensuous enjoyment, he has sacrificed the best that is in him to the latter, in a characteristic revolt against convention and restraint. Schiller’s early heroes, no less emotional, are men of action and violence. Karl Moor in ‘The Robbers’ (1781), calumniated and cast off, gathers a band of robbers and declares war on humanity; ‘Love and Intrigue’ (1784) is wholly political, and embodies a frightful satire upon the courts of the time; ‘Fiesco’ (1783) shows us the overweening, insensate ambition of a monstrous egoist.

None of these works had the classic perfection of Lessing’s ‘Emilia Galotti’ (1772), or the wonderful restraint and moral fervor of ‘Nathan the Wise’ (1779), but their very impetuosity and passionate utterance gave them a hearing which Lessing never gained. The time was seething, and clamored for an outlet. When we recall that Napoleon, not generally considered very emotional by nature, carried ‘Werther’ with him throughout his campaign in Egypt; when we call to mind the tumultuous scenes at the first performance of ‘The Robbers’—where utter strangers embraced and wept on each other’s necks—we may gain some conception of the power with which the early works of Goethe and Schiller reached the hearts of their contemporaries. That the inflammable temper of the time was not brought to the point of explosion, as in the neighboring land of France, was in no little measure due to certain qualities, already alluded to, in the literature itself.

Reading Recommended

In addition, Goethe’s ‘Sorrows of Werther’ and Schiller’s ‘Robbers’ are almost indispensable for the study of this period.

The Perfect Fruition

The individualism that had originally meant escape from the world of public affairs, and that reached its climax in the period of “Storm and Stress,” had been magically transformed by the inspired nationalism of Herder and the stern moral imperative of Kant. Thus by natural degrees the potent forces that might have brought disintegration into the life of the people were transfused into the guiding and dominant tendencies of the nineteenth century. The subordination of the one to the many, of the individual to the whole, was promoted and enforced by the realization that in this arrangement the individual finds his highest possible development and usefulness.

Pure, rebellious individualism, however, was to hold the stage once more, before yielding to the resistless advance of enlightened collectivism, in the so-called Romantic movement. German Romanticism was at its height when the subjugation of the German people to the Napoleonic régime seemed most complete: its fundamental note was one of morbid individualism. Less violent than the German revolutionaries of the previous generation, these men were also less healthy in their revolt. Jean Paul (J. P. F. Richter) (1763–1825) did indeed aspire to the maintenance of some sort of classic tradition, but his extraordinary imagination, inadequately restrained, burst all bounds, while his natural taste for the abnormal grew by what it fed upon. So we find a similar fantastic and lunatic self-assertiveness in the three leading exponents of German Romanticism: Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), Friedrich Schlegel (1772–18??9), and Novalis (1772–1801). Tieck’s ‘William Lovell’ (1795) exemplifies the substitution of individual caprice for the moral law; Schlegel’s ‘Lucinde’ (1797) betrays an unblushing glorification of the flesh, and avowed hostility to all spiritual advancement; Novalis’s ‘Henry of Ofterdingen’ (1799) flees from the land of reality into that of the supernatural and miraculous.

Meanwhile, however, the transmutation of that early individualism into a classic collectivism had already taken place in the two greatest poets Germany has produced, in Goethe and Schiller. Schiller achieved his highest and best in the five great dramas into which he poured the last years of his sadly shortened life: ‘Wallenstein’ (1798), ‘Mary Stuart’ (1800), ‘The Maid of Orleans’ (1801), ‘The Bride of Messina’ (1803), and ‘William Tell’ (1804). In these works we encounter a large-souled individualism that is born of national consciousness. Joan of Arc and William Tell are not merely heroic figures: they are at the same time inspired patriots.

But while Schiller died almost at the turn of the century, it was given to Goethe to witness the political regeneration of Prussia and the bursting of the Napoleonic bonds. So we find a double peak in Goethe’s creative work: one coinciding with Schiller’s last years, the other falling nearly thirty years later. To the earlier period belong especially ‘Iphigenia’ (1787), ‘William Meister’s Apprenticeship’ (1795), and ‘Hermann and Dorothea’ (1797). In ‘Iphigenia’ Goethe gives the purely national Greek legend a universal character by altering the conflict from one between gods and men, barbarians and Greeks, to one between the baser and the nobler impulses of the human spirit. No poet of “Storm and Stress” could have written this classic of restraint and calm beauty; it is in some ways the finest flower of Goethe’s ripened and mellowed art, of his humanized and broadened sympathy. In ‘William Meister,’ which is strongly autobiographical, we watch German society gradually passing from the aristocratic system of the eighteenth century to the new aristocracy of the spirit. ‘Hermann and Dorothea,’ on the other hand, harks back to that instinctive search for inspiration in nature which we noted as a leading tendency of early eighteenth-century literature. Goethe’s poem represents the climax of that idyllic school that had ushered in the new era.

As these works of classic poise and beauty rebuke, in a sense, the wild extremism of Goethe’s own earlier creations, so his later writings are a severe condemnation of the reckless individualism of early German Romanticism. ‘Pandora’ (1807) exalts the Olympians as the pillars of the divine order, whereas ‘Prometheus’ (1773) had rebelled against them; ‘The Elective Affinities’ (1809) develops the tragic conflict between an elemental passion and the moral law. To even greater heights we rise in the two works that embody Goethe’s final message to the world: ‘William Meister’s Travels’ (1821–1829) and ‘Faust’ (Part II., 1832). Whereas the ‘Apprenticeship’ displayed the attainment of individual culture, the ‘Travels’ hold up the ideal of a society well organized; there the aim was variety of personal experience and, so, richness of spiritual life—here it is renunciation of the personal interest and service for the welfare of the whole, and Faust’s ultimate salvation depends on the same principle: renunciation of self, and work for humanity. Thus ‘Faust’ Part II. is the supreme utterance of one of the fundamental tendencies of all modern life.

This collectivistic humanism of Goethe and Schiller lives on in none so much as in Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811), and Ludwig Uhland (1787–1862), though neither can approach the greatness of those giants. In the ‘Prince of Homburg’ (1810), Kleist’s best and sanest work, he depicts the steps by which a Romantic rebel, lost in self-indulgence and fantastic dreaming, awakes to the simple yet imperative tasks of everyday life. Uhland has been called the classic of Romanticism. His best poems, such as ‘The Chapel,’ ‘The Shepherd’s Sunday Song,’ ‘The Castle by the Sea,’ ‘The Landlady’s Daughter,’ ‘The Good Comrade,’ have a quality that approaches the deep-seated simplicity of the folksong, and through them all runs a quiet, assured democratic strain that is an outward symbol of a regenerated nation.

Reading Recommended

  • Goethe (1749–1832)
  • Hoffmann (1776–1822)
  • Kleist (1777–1811)
  • Novalis (1772–1801)
  • Jean Paul (J. P. F. Richter) (1763–1825)
  • Schiller (1759–1805)
  • Tieck (1773–1853)
  • Uhland (1787–1862)
  • The Deadly Blight

    Dark days were to come for the German people. Once more the attempt was made to reassert and maintain the monarchic autocracy of the early eighteenth century. Hardly had the German people, in an unparalleled burst of patriotic effort, cast off the Napoleonic fetters, when new ones were forged for it by its own government. The effects on the national literature were far-reaching and tragic. Grillparzer (1791–1872) saw his undoubted talent stifled and thwarted by bureaucratic narrowness; Rückert (1788–1866) was defrauded of his first manly patriotism and withdrew into retirement; we see Schopenhauer’s pessimism deepened, Lenau’s morbidness fed, Platen’s moroseness encouraged. Gravest damage of all, perhaps, was done on Heine (1799–1856), who, scorned because of his race and persecuted for his passionate political convictions, was virtually driven into exile, and consumed his best powers in vain attempts to rise above these humiliations and disappointments.

    Nor did new poets arise to take the places of these whose very genius was powerless to save their artistry. German literature from 1850–1870 is almost at the same low ebb that it had reached just one hundred years before. Two solitary figures of surpassing power rise high above the common ranks, both of them only to achieve recognition in a later day: Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and Friedrich Hebbel (1813–1863). Not until the founding of the new German Empire was there any promise of a national resurrection and a literary renaissance; and even that promise was destined to wait twenty years for its fulfillment.

    Reading Recommended

  • Franz Grillparzer (1791–1872)
  • Heinrich Heine (1797–1856)
  • August, Graf von Platen (1796–1835)
  • Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866)
  • Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860)
  • Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
  • A Selected List of German Works in English Translation

  • (Translator or Editor)
  • Early Period
  • Gottfried v. Strassburg
    ‘Tristan and Iseult’J. L. WestonLond., 1899 (2 v.)
  • GudrunM. P. NicholsBost., 1889
  • HildebrandsliedF. A. WoodChic., 1914
  • MinnesingersJ. BithellLond., 1909
  • NibelungenliedM. ArmourN.Y., n. d.
  • Old German Love SongsF. C. NicholsonChic., 1907
  • Walther von der VogelweideW. A. PhillipsLond., 1896
  • Wolfram von Eschenbach
    ‘Parzival’J. L. WestonN.Y., 1912 (2 v.)
  • To 1750
  • Brant, Sebastian
    ‘Ship of Fools’A. BarclayLond., 1874
  • Eulenspiegel, Till.
    ‘Marvellous Adventures’K. R. H. MackenzieLond., 1890
  • Luther, M.
    ‘Conversations’Preserved SmithBost., 1915
  • ‘Hymns’Anon.N.Y., 1883
  • ‘Primary Works’Wace and BuchheimLond., 1896
  • ‘Table Talk’W. HazlittLond., 1902
  • Sach, Hans
    ‘Tales and Plays’W. LeightonLond., 1910
  • 1750–1880
  • German LyricsC. T. BrooksBost., 1853
  • German ClassicsKuno FranckeN.Y., 1914 (20 v.)
  • Poetry of GermanyA. BaskervillePhil., 1886
  • Select Minor Poems of Goethe, Schiller (and others)J. S. DwightBost., 1838
  • Songs and BalladsC. T. BrooksBost., 1842
  • Busch, W.
    ‘Max and Maurice’C. T. BrooksBost., 1871
  • ‘Plish and Plum’C. T. BrooksBost., 1883
  • Ebner-Eschenbach, M.
    ‘The Child of the Parish’M. A. RobinsonN.Y., 1893
  • Goethe
    WorksHedge and NoaBost., 1895 (10 v.)
  • ‘Faust’Bayard TaylorN.Y., 1911
  • PoemsAytoun and MartinN.Y., 1859
  • Grillparzer, F.
    ‘Sappho’E. FrothinghamBost., 1876
  • Grimm
    ‘Fairy Tales’Anon.N.Y., n. d.
  • Hebbel, F.
    ‘Agnes Bernauer’L. PatteeBost., 1909
  • ‘Three Plays’Allen and FairleyN.Y., n. d.
  • Heine, H.
    WorksLeland and othersN.Y., 1906 (12 v.)
  • Kant
    ‘Philosophy’J. WatsonLond., 1901
  • Lessing
    ‘Dramatic Works’VariousLond., 1891
  • ‘Laocoön’E. FrothinghamBost., 1904
  • Reuter, F.
    ‘An Old Story of my Farming Days’M. W. MacDowallTauchnitz
  • ‘In the Year ’13’C. L. LewesTauchnitz
  • Schiller
    WorksVariousBohn Lib. (7 v.)
  • Schopenhauer
    ‘Basis of Morality’A. B. BullockLond., 1903
  • ‘Studies in Pessimism’M. B. SaundersLond., 1908
  • Wagner, R.
    ‘The Nibelungen Ring’J. R. L. RankinN.Y., 1899 (2 v.)
  • Wieland
    ‘The Republic of Fools’H. ChristmasLond., 1861 (2 v.)
  • Modern Period
  • Contemporary German PoetryJ. BithellLond., 1909
  • German ClassicsKuno FranckeN.Y., 1914 (vols. 19&&150;20)
  • Bartsch, R. H.
    ‘Elizabeth Koett’L. LewisohnN.Y., 1911
  • Frenssen, G.
    ‘Holyland’M. A. HamiltonBost., 1906
  • ‘Jörn Uhl’F. S. DehnerBost., 1905
  • Hauptmann, G.
    WorksL. LewisohnN.Y., 1917 (7 v.)
  • Rosegger, P.
    ‘Forest Schoolmaster’F. E. SkinnerN.Y., 1901